Carole Nash
Content Writer
Published: 13th March 2018

Riding gear is an integral part of motorbike safety, with a helmet being one of the most important components. However, within the history of motorbikes, it took a long time before helmets were introduced as safety features. All of it goes back to an incident with T.E Lawrence and the research of a neurosurgeon called Hugh Cairns. Thanks to Cairns’ efforts, motorbike helmets became a factor in saving the lives of countless riders. We’re looking back on Cairns’ life and how he became a pioneer of motorbike safety.


Crucial research

Cairns was born in Port Pirie, Australia, though he earned a scholarship in 1917 that allowed him to study at the University of Oxford. He went on to become a neurosurgeon at the London Hospital and then set up the Nuffield Department of Surgery in Oxford. Cairns fixation with motorbike safety came after Lawrence of Arabia’s motorbike accident.

Lawrence had crashed his Brough Superior SS100 near his cottage in Wareham. He suffered serious head injuries and died six days later. Cairns had been one of the doctors treating him and he discovered during an autopsy that Lawrence had “severe lacerations and damage to the brain.” Deeply affected by Lawrence’s death, Cairns started researching head trauma and the use of helmets.

He believed that thousands of motorbike deaths in Britain could be avoided if a rider’s head was protected. Cairns published his first paper on the subject in the British Medical Journal in 1941. According to his study, 1884 motorcyclists had died in Britain 21 months prior to WW2. In the 21 months after England entered WW2, 2279 riders died, which showed an increase of 21%.

A legal requirement

At the time, wearing a motorbike helmet was rare, so Cairns could only study a few people who’d survived crashes. Eventually, his research convinced the British Army that wearing helmets was crucial to saving lives.

Cairns carried out his next study in 1943 and found that motorbike deaths in the military had fallen from 200 a month to 50. Civilian helmet use was still an issue and Cairns made a comparison in his 1946 paper. “From these experiments there can be little doubt that adoption of a crash helmet as standard wear by all civilian motorcyclists would result in considerable saving of life.”

Unfortunately, Cairns died of cancer in 1952 before he could see the results of his research come to fruition. In 1973, the British government passed a law that made helmets a mandatory piece of riding equipment.

Cairns campaigned tirelessly to legitimise the importance of motorbike helmets. His work helped to save countless lives, which makes him a key figure in the history of motorcycle safety.